PALERMO, Sicily — Gobsmacked. I had to look it up. It fit as I wandered through Mercato Ballaro, considered the oldest of Palermo’s four major outdoor markets. It’s life itself, a flume of color, smells, tastes, passionate appeals from vendors.
Yes, Sicily has remarkable sites to visit — the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Normans left behind a stunning array of architecture — temples, mosaics, amphitheaters, mosques, cathedrals, and piazzas. But it’s in the markets where the country’s soul is most alive.
I have visited many markets in many countries, but I have never encountered the vibrancy and exuberance of walking the cobblestone streets of the Ballaro.
Getting off the bus at the Piazza Carmine, my wife, Roma, and I started at the top. We actually heard the market before we entered. The cacophony of vendors shouting and singing the wonders of their produce — a fugue between fish and fruit — as if a higher pitch brings more shoppers. Their stalls are covered with bright red and green tarpaulins and umbrellas, harkening back to the market’s origins — Middle Eastern and African souks dating back a millennium, reflected today in Palermo’s admix of cultures and ethnicities.
We began at a great bank of strawberries, brilliant in the spring sunlight, and ended with pane ca’ meuza, a traditional fat sandwich of grilled beef spleen (inedible). Over the 250 meters in between runs an unimaginable gamut of fruit, vegetables, seafood, and meat, much of which we had never heard of, never mind tasted.
The most dramatic scene was a butcher carving up a whole bluefin tuna with a cleaver the size of a shovel head. The tuna was a log nearly 2 feet in diameter with a spine running through the deep red flesh. It takes two people to cut. The tranche is then sliced to order as women line up using fingers to gauge the thickness.
Lying next to the tuna is a whole swordfish, perhaps the most prized of the 30 or so fish and mollusks displayed on chipped ice. Nearby selections ranged from cockles and spitting clams to assorted sardines and anchovies and whitebait to mackerel and octopus — rendering predictions of the Mediterranean’s demise somewhat premature.
The two mongers worked in tandem, all the while shouting across the way to the vegetable stand owner. There was lots of hand waving and laughter. Passersby could not help being caught up in such obvious camaraderie. It’s hard to think of a happier place, where the most mundane human transactions are done with such civility and animation.
Our real pursuit was Palermo’s celebrated “street food.” Think antipasti, standing up. So, butchers — whose display runs from sausage casing to wild boar — will slip the errant shopper a slice of mortadella. The same from the cheesemonger — maybe gorgonzola or fontina.
We chose to sit at Umby and Tony, one of a few markets with outdoor seating— perhaps because a guy across the street was playing “volare” on his accordion. We went right for one of Sicily’s national dishes: panino con pannelli e cracce, a fat sandwich stuffed with potato croquets and fried squares of a chickpea paste (the diet special). It was followed by sardines rolled with raisins, pine nuts, and breadcrumbs. Then came barchella de melanzano, thin-sliced swordfish topped with Sicily’s own version of caponata — a stew of eggplant, capers, lemon, olives, canned tomatoes, onion, and, of course, garlic and oil.
A nearby diner explained (through our translation app) that the country’s street food has been gathered from around the Mediterranean: “In olden times, people would bring raw food to be cooked on braziers, then taken home. The original takeout.” We had to try another Sicilian hallmark: arancini, which literally means “orange.” It’s the go-to cheap peasant dish. Take a handful of cooked risotto rice, squeeze it into a ball about the size of an orange, poke your finger in the top and encase it with a mix of sautéed onions, peas, and mozzarella (and, if you want to splurge, ground meat). Then roll the ball in breadcrumbs, deep fat fry it, and serve it on a puddle of tomato sauce.
The best part was the tomato sauce. When the waiter came to clear plates, he could see the remains of my disappointment. “I don’t like it much either,” he commiserated. “I don’t know why they call it the national dish.” Stick with risotto with peas.
We retraced our steps through the discord of haggling vendors, bought a gelato, and walked past the banks of strawberries into the bright afternoon sun. The traffic, the horns, the hustle-bustle around the Piazza Carmine were jolting after two hours strolling through a special sanctuary of colors, exuberance, and good eats (a long way from pushing your cart up Aisle 6). Then we stood in line for the bus.John Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.